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Afghanistan in Desperate Need of Medical Attention - 2002-01-10

After years of Afghanistan being cut off from the rest of the world, a clear picture is only now emerging of the health situation there. New figures gathered by the World Health Organization show that, by any measure, Afghanistan is a country desperately in need of every kind of medical aid.

The health statistics for Afghanistan are staggering. One in four children dies before the age of five. Child-bearing mothers have the second-highest mortality rate in the world, just below Sierra Leone in Africa.

The average life expectancy for Afghan women is 47 years of age, but that is four years higher than the life expectancy of men at 43. Some six million Afghans have little or no access to any health services.

But officials at the World Health Organization are working with the new Afghan government to improve these figures.

They say the newly appointed minister of public health, Dr. Sohaila Siddiq, has made it clear she wants to work with WHO. One of her top priorities is rehabilitating the country's hospital facilities, many of which lack beds, operating equipment and even heat.

Fadela Chaib is a WHO official who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan, where she met with Dr. Siddiq. "Dr. Siddiq said, 'We need WHO and other organizations to help us with the training of health workers.' Secondly she said, 'It is important for us to control communicable diseases,' and she stressed the need for more help in controlling for example, tuberculosis and malaria," said Ms. Chaib. "She also said that maternal and child health is very important and we should assist them in those two areas."

WHO and the United Nation's children's agency, UNICEF, are also sponsoring mass immunization campaigns against polio and measles in Afghanistan.

WHO's polio information officer, Christine McNab, says the health agency vaccinated some five million Afghan children against polio this past autumn. "We are certainly hoping that security improves, and when it does nationwide campaigns can be conducted again," she said. "Right now, there are two more rounds scheduled for this spring. The target population is about 5.4 million children, and we expect to have good success there."

WHO says it hopes to eliminate polio in Afghanistan this year. Eleven cases were reported last year, compared with 120 in 2000.

Ms. McNab said WHO and UNICEF also plan to vaccinate some nine million Afghan children against measles, which is a big killer in Afghanistan, taking the lives of 35,000 children each year.

WHO, along with the UN refugee agency, will also be working together to help rebuild a hospital in Afghanistan's Parwan province, northwest of Kabul. Fadela Chaib said Charikar hospital, which was built to serve 14 districts in the province, has been badly looted and right now has only one bed. "No water, no electricity," she said. "The personnel is there but they have nothing. WHO decided with the help of UNHCR to try to rebuild the entire hospital, because really it is very important for all the population of this area."

A conference on rebuilding Afghanistan is taking place in Tokyo at the end of this month, and WHO officials say they hope the conference delegates will focus their attention on rebuilding Afghanistan's public health system.